Hello Watch, Watch my BP

When one watches the news these days, it is easy to get the impression that just getting out of bed is a huge risk. Every other day, there is a new terror group or virus that is gunning for us. There are people who are very philosophical about such matters and feel that their destiny is preset. But most people still look both ways before they cross the street and believe that there is an opportunity to change our lifes’ outcomes.

In the midst of all of the panic that keeps news stations alive and well, it is clear that people have the amazing ability to ignore the mundane, no matter how life-threatening it may be.

I recently saw a posting about the statistics related to high blood pressure. As it turns out, there are a tremendous number of people who are unaware of the fact that they have high blood pressure. Of those that know of this problem, there is a significant percentage that failed to modify their lifestyle and/or take the appropriate medication. To be fair, there are many patients who would very much wish to take all of the medications prescribed to them, but simply cannot afford to. The point is that while Ebola is still front page news, high blood pressure is rarely reported on, despite the health risks associated with high blood pressure.

Measuring high blood pressure is technically straightforward. It is one of the first things that I officially learned when I started medical school. It somehow makes you feel that you are truly involved in the patient’s care. “Laying of the hands” is a very important part of medicine. When a doctor places a hand, even on the shoulder of the patient purely as a supportive gesture, there is clearly a significant effect on the patient. This little bit of contact makes a difference. Checking a pulse also connects a healthcare provider to the patient. But measuring blood pressure also involves a “gadget”. So now, it’s not just the doctors’ hands on the patient, but rather an element from the doctors’ black bag. It’s all part of the magical aura that I spoke about in a previous blog.

Within this past year, there has been a very strong push regarding wearable computing devices. Smart watches are no longer an oddity nor even a luxury. They are being adopted rapidly, and will likely soon become part of the standard arsenal with which the digital warrior leaves his or her castle/home every day. Initially, the role of the smart watch was effectively to be a second screen for the mobile phone. The basic assumption was that the mobile phone was either in the pocket, hanging from a belt, in a purse or briefcase or in any other location that was not readily accessible when driving or crowded together on a full elevator.

The idea of the smart watch at this point was to do the basics, but still keep the user sufficiently connected. For example, the smart watch would let you know that an email was waiting, and perhaps even display a part or the whole message in a scrollable window. The smart watch would remind the user of the meeting they were already 10 minutes late for, because they couldn’t find their mobile phone. So in its initial stage, the smart watch was really thought of just as an extension of the mobile phone.

But then came the sensors. Admittedly, this sounds like the title of a sci-fi horror movie, but in fact it is the technology that has transformed smart watches into self-contained healthcare monitors. Each company producing smart watches has leapt onto the bandwagon, with their version and set of sensors.

Generally speaking, all of the watches that have sensors, have at least a sensor for the user’s pulse. After pulse, some watches will have sensors for the oxygen level in a person’s blood or the user’s blood pressure. The number of sensors will definitely grow over time. Smart watches will soon be able to read glucose levels which will be a boon to every diabetic. Some would say it was expected, but it’s clear now that the smart watch has transformed from simply being an extension of the mobile phone to become a digital watchful eye that is at work [pardon the pun] “round-the-clock”.

Having a person’s blood pressure constantly monitored actually has the potential to revolutionize healthcare. High blood pressure  is a key risk factor for heart disease (like heart attacks, congestive heart failure), stroke, kidney disease (like renal failure requiring dialysis), vascular disease (blocked vessels all around the body) and more. If it was possible to eliminate high blood pressure from everyone who has it, there would be a tremendous improvement in the overall health of the population, and then massive savings in healthcare costs. It therefore might very well be that smart watches will subconsciously raise everyone’s level of concern over their elevated blood pressure, and will drive them to act to reduce it.

Human beings are fascinating creatures. Under certain circumstances, they could be driven to do things that they would otherwise not be interested in. Many people respond to a challenge. If they are told that their score (on anything) is different than another’s, they may very well work to get their score up or down, based on what ever is considered better. If people become aware of their blood pressure secondary to their smart watches, and more than that, are told that they are in the top 20% of blood pressure readings, this might just be the push that they need to rise to the challenge of getting their numbers down.

They will start walking  and they will start watching what they eat and they will visit their doctor on a regular basis. Then, as their blood pressure starts to fall, they will now be in the top 30%, meaning that they are doing better. It will become a topic of conversation, at fancy parties and bars. People will compare their blood pressure readings as if it is a measure of their inherent value as a person. And all the while, as these individuals compete over the number they see on their watch face, the health of the population will improve dramatically.

Our personal relationship with our own health is about to change, due to all of the sensors that will soon surround us and constantly report to us on how well we are doing. Some people will ignore this information. But most will not. Most will make an extra effort to get their numbers looking as good as they can. So buy the smart watch because it is a cool accessory. But wear the smart watch because it might actually end up saving your life.

Thanks for listening

About the Author
Dr. Nahum Kovalski received his bachelor's of science in computer science and his medical degree in Canada. He came to Israel in 1991 and married his wife of 22 years in 1992. He has 3 amazing children and has lived in Jerusalem since making Aliyah. Dr. Kovalski was with TEREM Emergency Medical Services for 21 years until June of 2014, and is now a private consultant on medicine and technology.
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